Debris of 4,900 trees cleared from Watkiss Way property

The removal of massive amounts of debris from 24 acres on Watkiss Way — where 4,900 trees were cut down late last year to make way for hay — got underway Wednesday, with landowner Allen Vandekerkhove at the helm of an excavator.

“It’s so much fun,” he said, saying he purchased three “big boy toys” to help get the job done, with help from grandson Christopher and great-grandson Benjamin.

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Vandekerkhove logged the second-growth Douglas firs and cedars opposite Victoria General Hospital in December after failing to get Saanich council sanction to consider siting a regional sewage-treatment plant amid the trees.

He said his only remaining option was to generate farm income on the land. The property is in the Agricultural Land Reserve, and logging to grow hay is a permitted use.

The timber from nearly 5,000 trees was sold to Timber West for about $500,000, Vandekerkhove said, but once expenses such as cutting, loading and freighting the logs are factored in, “I’ll probably be in the hole a little bit.”

The cleaning up and carting away of up to 250 truck loads of roots, stumps and branches was shut down in February over environmental concerns, he said.

Rains churned up so much grey mud from machinery moving logs that project biologist Thomas Roy halted work to ensure runoff did not get into local waterways, Vandekerkhove said. Eagle Creek meanders though his property, then under the hospital parking lot on its way to Portage Inlet, he said. “We had all these things tested out before we started logging.”

Vandekerkhove said he hopes to seed the property this autumn.

“Once I put my grass down, it’ll look like a major golf course,” he said. The land is looking its roughest now, with all the roots exposed. “I’m going to remould the land as best I can and then try to get seed on it this fall before the rains start.”

The debris will be taken to a site on the Malahat. Burning would have been far cheaper and more efficient, but would have posed a “big problem” for the nearby hospital, Vandekerkhove said. “Everything’s going to be done properly.”

The removal of the trees sparked an outcry in Saanich.

Mayor Richard Atwell tried to intercede when the trees started to come down, but Vandekerkhove had already been issued a permit and could not be persuaded to cease logging to discuss other options.

Marlene Todd, an executive member of the Residents Association of Strawberry Vale, Marigold and Glanford, said the cleanup will not be beneficial for wildlife.

“Unfortunately, many animals will once again be displaced, now that that they’ve resettled, and a lot of them are still re-nested in the logs. There’s lots of quail in this area, squirrels and deer. The whole thing is just a crying shame as far as I’m concerned,” Todd said.

“We will be keeping a close eye to see if they actually intend to plant hayfields as promised or if it was just payback for not letting the owners get what they wanted.

“We’ll wait and see.”

Acting Saanich mayor Susan Brice said Wednesday that the Saanich Fire Department has confirmed that the debris will not be burned on site.

A five-metre buffer area will be left around the water bodies on the property as part of the Saanich permit, Brice said, conforming to the ALR riparian setback guidelines.

“Staff have visited the site and found the tree removals to be within the scope of the tree removal permit,” she said.

Speaking personally, Brice said that Vandekerkhove is exercising his rights on agricultural land. “There are differences in appearance [to the landscape], no doubt, but the hay crop is a legitimate agriculture use of this land. Under the ALR, the property owner has the right to clear land for crop production.”

Vandekerkhove, who owns adjacent land, bought the Watkiss property for $1.2 million about 21Ú2 years ago after it had been on the market for five years.

Saanich considered the site for a park in 2013, but the proposal did not go forward.

The sewage-treatment plan proposal, which would have saved half the trees, was initially rejected 5-4 by Saanich council.

Atwell took the proposal back to council last summer, but a motion to send it to the Capital Regional District for consideration was defeated in a tie vote.

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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